Story Excerpt

Scrap Drive: A Four Horsemen Story

by Loren D. Estleman
 

ScrapDrive_TimFoley
Art by Tim Foley

“I can’t feel my privates,” Detective Burke said.

Sergeant Canal shifted his cigar to the other side of his mouth. “If that’s an invitation, count me out.”

“A little respect, fellas.” Lieutenant Zagreb inclined his head toward a loudspeaker blasting out Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.” The men crowded around the great heap in the middle of Grand Circus—those who weren’t in military uniform—stood with their hats off, the women with their hands over their hearts. The servicemen stood at attention, saluting.

Burke dropped his voice to a grating whisper. “What I mean is, right now some dogface in Buttcracken, Germany, is wearing my long johns. I just got ’em broke in when Sadie packed ’em off to her brother in the hundred and first.”

“We all make sacrifices,” Canal said. “My toaster’s in that pile. Ever try to eat ersatz bread raw?”

“Cheer up. Maybe a slice’ll find its way up Hitler’s ass.”

The normally well-tended park in the center of downtown Detroit resembled a city dump. Iron stoves, aluminum pots and pans, copper kettles, brass door knockers, coils of wire, toy trains, candlesticks, tin cups, sardine cans, galvanized pails, claw-foot tubs, bowling trophies, and small appliances stood in a mound fifteen feet high and thirty feet in diameter, surrounded by spectators. If it was made of metal, it could be converted into tanks, planes, destroyers, bullets, and bombs aimed at Germany, Italy, and Japan.

Detective third-grade McReary joined them. “All clear, L.T.”

Zagreb studied the young man from head to foot, looking for a telltale bulge in his overcoat that might belong to a smuggled coffee pot. The lieutenant himself had been known to score a useful treasure or two from such displays, but not when it was his duty to protect them from scavengers. “Keep your eyes peeled,” he said, “all of you. I don’t have to tell you what happened last time.”

Fourteen months earlier, in the fall of 1943, an olive-drab truck with a khaki canvas sheet stretched over the trailer had driven up to one of the community events staged by the mayor to encourage support of the war effort, loaded up with donated scrap, and rumbled away, to cheers from the crowd. The cargo never reached the local plants, which had suspended automobile production in order to build combat weapons. Instead, the truck with u.s. army stenciled on the side of the cab was found abandoned in a barn in neighboring Oakland County, its load likely divvied up among unscrupulous manufacturers paying rock-bottom prices for raw material.

Burke said, “If we pinched Frankie last month like I said we should, we wouldn’t be out here freezing our nuts off. You can’t give orders from the hole at Thirteen Hundred.”

Thirteen Hundred Beaubien was police headquarters, where Zagreb’s Racket Squad worked with a skeleton force of officers not yet caught up in the draft to tighten the screws on gangsters like Frankie Orr, who’d invested bootlegging profits left over from Prohibition into the wartime black market.

Kate Smith finished belting. Zagreb put his hat back on. “What’d we use for a warrant, box tops? Frankie’d make money, his lawyer’d make money, and we’d be celebrating Christmas in Buttcracken, Germany.”

“Can’t be any colder’n here.” Burke jerked his hat down over his ears. The squad, colloquially known as the Four Horsemen, affected matching gray fedoras and black topcoats in order to avoid blackjacking one another by mistake in riot situations.

December in Detroit was a crapshoot. One year, the Gulf Stream might gift it with a turkey dinner cookout in the backyard. Some years rain poured. More typically—as now—the sky turned Wehrmacht gray and the wind from Canada flung shards of ice like airborne torpedoes, stinging skin and making eyes water. The patrolmen assigned to crowd control changed grips on their nightsticks to work the stiffness out of their knuckles; their overcoats were heavy wool and their hats trimmed with fur, but their gloves were unlined for purposes of dexterity.

The big moment came when a line of Boy Scouts from the Grosse Pointe troop filed into the park, each bearing a section of black wrought-iron grid: The old auto money widows who lived in the ritzy suburb had Done Their Bit, donating the ornamental fencing around their mansions for victory.

Canal watched the boys toss the sections onto the pile. “Who’s gonna keep their pigs from running out into Lake Shore Drive?”

“Cut it out!” Zagreb snapped. “Some of ’em are Silver Star mothers.”

Reddening, the sergeant fished a half-dollar-sized disc of tarnished copper out of a pocket and flipped it onto the heap.

McReary asked what it was.

“Token from Hattie Long’s whorehouse. My lucky piece.”

“Was it still good?” Burke asked.

“It ought to give the whole Japanese fleet a case of the crabs.”

A platform had been constructed in front of the pile, draped with red-white-and-blue bunting. A man with a beer belly climbed the steps wearing an American Legion uniform topped off by an overseas cap. On the far end was a ramp, up which a nurse in a starched cap and cape wheeled a Civil War veteran, all of a hundred years old in a moth-eaten uniform and a shako cap, with a steamer rug covering his lap. His face registered nothing at all as the Legion commander thundered out a patriotic tribute and a little girl shivering in a pinafore walked up to the edge of the platform and held up a floral bouquet twice her size. The nurse took it from her and laid it atop the steamer rug.

Mayor Jeffries came next, propelled by a gust of brass from the fire department band. He was accompanied by Lawrence “Lunk” Axelrod, formerly a sergeant with Stationary Traffic and now the head of the mayor’s security detail, barrel-shaped, with a head pinched on all four sides like a Phillips-head screwdriver.

“Is Lunk wearing a vest?” McReary asked Zagreb.

“Naw, he’s all knackwurst under that twelve-dollar suit. There’s enough lard there to stop a Kraut eighty-eight.”

Jeffries unrolled a scroll and began to read from it. Just then a gale came up from the river and tore most of the words away from the loudspeaker.

“. . . Westinghouses into warships . . . Hudsons into Howitzers . . . Singers into submarines . . .”

Zagreb lit a Chesterfield and snapped the match into the wind. “Now we know who’s footing the bill for his reelection.”

The mass of metal pressed against the back of the platform. Reaching across the safety railing, the mayor selected an ugly bronze statuette from the edge of the junk heap and held it up above his head. The wind shifted in his favor, and his flabby basso rang throughout the park.

“This object d’art—as our valiant French allies call such things—was commissioned by Henry Ford, Detroit’s foremost citizen, from a Greek master and given to his son, the late Edsel, on the occasion of his wedding. It was cast from the radiator of the one-millionth Model T to leave the River Rouge assembly line in nineteen fourteen. The Ford family has generously donated it to this largest scrap drive in the history of the war.”

Canal said, “I bet Edsel’s widow was the first to contribute.”

Something rumbled.

Heads turned skyward, but the clouds were heavy with snow, not thundershowers. Lunk, whose reflexes were superior to his intellect, groped for the piece strapped under his suit coat. A sort of groan followed, and the great heap shuddered and squirmed like some huge beast coming to life. Instinctively, the crowd surged away from the platform.

It was as if a keystone had been removed, undermining the structure. A conglomeration of stovepipes, hubcaps, and bedsprings tumbled down from the top, spilling onto the platform with a deafening clatter and clang. Lunk threw his arms around the mayor in a bear hug and pulled him away from the slide, actually lifting his feet off the ground. The pile writhed and shifted; more debris followed the first. Electric fans, a refrigerator compressor, spills of loose rust. A water heater split the railing when it struck, landed end-first on the platform with a bang, and rolled, thudding up against the base of the railing in front. A stack of galvanized roofing sheets fell, separating like a deck of cards shuffled by invisible hands, and— . . . .

 

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Copyright © 2018. Scrap Drive: A Four Horsemen Story by Loren D. Estleman